Is There Conflict Between Zen and Kundalini Yoga? ~ Donna Quesada

Via on Jun 21, 2011

Zen and Kundalini Yoga: A Contradiction?

I shared some of my favorite Kundalini mantra music with a Buddhist friend the other day. He loved it, but then gingerly asked whether I “consider it to be compatible with Buddhism”. He asked about the music, but he was really asking about the paths, in general. “Maybe I should just forget about all that and just enjoy it for what it is”, he then mused. And did I have any thoughts?

Of course, I did. And he already knew the answer—”you said it”, I told him. “You should absolutely enjoy it because only the dualistic mind sees a difference. All paths are one and truth is truth”.

I have another Buddhist friend, a musician, who grew up with gospel. To my best knowledge, he would never consider shunning this inspirational music that he loves so much just because it’s Christian. What an idea! So, why wouldn’t it be fine to listen to Kundalini mantra music as a Buddhist?

One thing is certain; gospel is Americana. It’s part of our cultural heritage and we look upon it with nostalgia. On a wider note, Buddhists, like any one else, listen to a variety of music, much of which has no spiritual association at all. So, I would propose that if music with no spiritual connotation is fine, then music with some spiritual connotation would be even better—even when that tradition differs from one’s own because uplifting vibes are, well… nice.

The question of compatibility between two spiritual traditions smacks of the guilt many people still carry around from their childhoods, when their intimidating family religions forbade even a cursory glance at some other religion’s holy book.

But, both Buddhism and the Yogas are inclusive, rather than exclusive, which means one may practice alongside any other religious practice without conflict. And many do. Consider the many Buddhist meditation teachers who still consider themselves Jews (there is even a name for them: Jubus): Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg are but a few. And everyone knows about Leonard Cohen, Steven Seagal, Robert Downy Jr., Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn. And with regard to Yoga, a better question would be: Who hasn’t tried at least some form of it?

Buddhism, and Zen in particular, is not predicated on any beliefs and if there’s no belief, there’s nothing to contradict. Thus, Zen compliments any practice, spiritual or otherwise, like basketball—which is why Phil Jackson used Zen-style meditation as part of his training methods with the Lakers. Zen is, in the most basic sense, just meditation. It is the practice of waking up to the present moment; it is to “eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired.” So, it’s not surprising that training in such a discipline would improve performance in everything.

Perhaps my friend’s concern had more to do with the power of Kundalini mantra music. Known as Naad Yoga, it is spiritually potent. It is held that the human body is designed for transformation through its proper practice, but even if you don’t happen to believe that, it certainly won’t hurt you if you go ahead and chant anyway! (And less so, if you’re just listening.)

It is understood in all forms of Yoga that we have a central energy channel, known as the sushmuna, by which prana flows. This energy is our life force, it is consciousness itself, and to awaken its flow is to awaken to our own infinite potential as humans. In Kundalini parlance, it is to awaken to the divine within.

At the heart of this practice is mantra meditation in which we vibrate that central channel as well as every cell in our body, as long as we are chanting from the heart and with the belly. It is understood that everything is vibration, even our state of mind. So, we can either choose sounds that elevate, or not. Naad Yoga is the technology of doing just that.

And so, if it’s potent— all the better!

Even though Zen is not oriented around vibrational technology, it does have another point in common with Kundalini Yoga Practice: mindful meditation. One of my teachers, Guru Singh, talks endlessly about the importance of staying in the what is, rather than in the what should be, which is his way of reminding us to keep our heads out of the “picking and choosing mind.”

Sounds a lot like Zen talk to me!

Our outlook toward spiritual practice doesn’t have to be polemic. It’s not Zen versus Kundalini Yoga, any more than it’s Zen versus Judaism; they’re only separate in the divisive mind! One of the things I always liked about the Zendo was that there were Christians practicing next to Jews—at this level, none of that matters anymore.

While one path is not necessarily better than another, one may be more appropriate for an individual at a certain time than another—that’s the idea behind the various Yogas, or spiritual paths, in India. The great sages recognized that no one path is one size fits all.

We each have different temperaments and innumerable karmic circumstances that make up our lives. And it’s all in flux. Funny enough, if we weren’t allowed to grow and evolve, there would be no Buddhism at all! Buddha himself, born a Hindu, wouldn’t be pigeonholed. He embraced his truth and left the rest behind, settling himself somewhere in the middle of it all.

If acclamation and adaptation are necessary for a religion’s survival as a whole, how much more so is it for an individual in their own evolving, personal practice? Sometimes that means strands of different traditions get intermingled, the way Taoism and Buddhism did in the hearts of the mystics in old China, creating the birth of Ch’an (Zen).

In this light, the whole idea of a forever home is questionable. But even so, only the seeker gets to choose. And, with the right to proceed along the sequence, that is right for him or her. The well-known American spiritual teachers, Ram Dass and Bhagavan Das, both traveled along paths that were ever-expanding, each having received initiation from Buddhist and Yogic teachers—and the former started off Jewish. In Zen, as well, it’s not uncommon to venture into different forms of meditation, as found in the various schools of Zen, as well as in other Buddhist traditions, such as vipassana.

As a fun and hopefully useful analogy, look at Zen as a wonderful broth—the foundation of every soup that ever was. Like broth, Zen is simple (which doesn’t mean easy) and unembellished. But, when you add potatoes, celery, spices and salt, you’ve got something different. Some will dig it, some won’t.

To play with analogies further, Zen may be seen like an essential strand in the fabric of a rich spiritual life, as a concomitant part of a whole. And further still, think of it as a no-frills wooden boat, which, like any other boat, will carry you just fine to the other shore. Some boats are fancy, some are not, some go fast, some don’t and some rock more than others. How wonderful the differences are!

Through these analogies and commentary on my friend’s innocent question, I hope to have shown the beauty of each tradition, but most of all, that there’s no conflict between them—or with any other path.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Donna Quesada. Instructor of eastern philosophy and Kundalini Yoga, Zen practitioner, and author of Buddha in the Classroom; Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers. Website: www.donnaquesada.com

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27 Responses to “Is There Conflict Between Zen and Kundalini Yoga? ~ Donna Quesada”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    What is the goal of Kundalini practice? What is the outcome? Are you striving to become one with something…what is it?

  2. Thank you Padma. Kundalini Yoga is "the Yoga of awareness." To echo what I mentioned in the article, it is to know the divine within, but to go further, it is, like all Yogas, a relationship. It is the uniting of individual consciousness with the infinite consciousness. In the process of doing this, through the practice of Yoga, the practitioner wakes up to his/her infinite potential. Kundalini Yoga does this through specially sequenced kriya (physical exercises), breathwork, and meditation, especially mantra meditation. Through dedicated practice of these techniques, the process of breaking through unconscious limits is facilitated and awareness is expanded and we become able to master our energy and creative potential!

    And that's a thumbnail sketch of this beautiful practice!

    Sat Nam, Namaste, and Gassho.
    ~Donna

    • Padma Kadag says:

      Your original question, "is there conflict between Zen and Kundalini practice?" I do not practice either but I am familiar with Buddhism so I am assuming that Zen shares the same basis of Buddhist view. As you say that your goal is to connect with the "divine", it is here that your Kundalini practice may have nothing incommon with Buddhism. On the surface only, we can find practices in tantric Buddhism which may resemble kundalini practice but do not share the same goal. Because there is recognition of chakras in both…I can assure you that the practices themselves are different and the "view and result" are not the same. If kundalini is a practice which originates from a god or goddess and relies on that god or goddess as the result then at a very basic level you are not in adherence to the teachings of the Buddha. They are very different and from the the viewpoint of either to each other there is little in common.

      • Thank you Padma. The notion, and even the very word, God, has this effect on people. Many people in the west who have turned away from their conventional, God-centered religions, have taken to Buddhism because of the lack of imposition of these beliefs. There was a time in my life when I too, felt uneasy with the word, and when I assumed that it somehow contradicted something. But if I may be direct, this feeling originates from the dualistic mind and from the idea that God was a "thing," an "entity," that was somehow "out there," separate from us. Buddha himself was not a confirmed atheist; he simply left the question alone, for such metaphysical musings (in the absence of true insight–because in the presence of true insight, there would be no need for philosophical dialectic) would not free us from suffering. In the presence of insight, there is nothing separate. It's all stillness, it's all within.
        Blessings,
        ~Donna

        • Padma Kadag says:

          Donna..My guess was that this is your feeling on this subject. My practice of Buddhism is not because of a fear of "God". I practice Buddhism because I have experienced positive changes due to the teachings and applications of those teachings I recieved from teachers. But in regard to your "It's all stillness, it's all within" is not true. If you say that you are practicing Kundalini then are you not responsible to hold up the lineage of teaching? Or have you decided on your own that Kundalini is what "you" make it? Surely there is an Indian origin with basis and lineage with responsibilities? The Buddha knows of gods and goddesses but the Buddha went beyond karma and those gods and goddesses are still subject to karma…that is Buddhist law, if you will. If you are practicing Kundalini without the refuge of whatever hindu god or goddess it requires then I would say you are not practicing Kundalini. Nor is it Buddhism. So maybe western adherents of kundalini have decided on their own to drop the divinity(god) out of kundalini

          • Padma Kadag says:

            Excuse my economy of words…often they sound harder than I intend. If we were to drop away the terms Buddhist and Kundalini then maybe our discussion would have to be more specific and require discussion on personal experience comparatively so that we could maybe see a difference in results. But because we are using the terms Buddhist and Kundalini are we not responsible to represent them according to their own schools of thought and practice? Certainly if the Buddha felt that Kundalini were the way out of samsara he would have been a very devout adherent. So…in answer to your original question…no..i don't think Buddhism and Kundalini (as a school of tantra from India or elsewhere) are compatible. There is nothing wrong with bliss. If you can find bliss and this is what you want then go for it. But this is not the goal of Buddhism, though it can be a "bi-product".

      • Dewaine says:

        you qualify your statement "I do not practice either", yet you go on and on to someone that has practiced both. Have some humility.

        • Padma Kadag says:

          Dewaine…I started my inquiry with the questions that I did. Go back and read them and carefully read the responses. It is always good to hear from others to have humility. I did associate Zen with any Buddhism I may practice. As for Kundalini I have no experience. But…it is my impression that your statement, "yet you go on and on to someone that has practiced both" MAY only be an exaggeration on both your part and Donna's. Do I know if someone "practices" at all? No. But based on Donna's responses she and her reasoning…these new agey responses alwyas end in.."It's all stillness, it's all within."….and this is coming from a Professor of Asian Philosophy? Read what I have said in my responses..

  3. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Hi Donna. Although there is a discussion going on here and I don't know too much about Kundalini Yoga, I felt I have learned a lot. Thank you for sharing!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
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  4. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  6. Padma Kadag says:

    I believe that if you were to study Buddhism a little deeper and do the practice with a teacher from an actual lineage which has produced masters both male and female you may find that what Kundalini has to offer is much different than what Buddhism"s "goal" is. That beyond our introductory sense of quietude and "bliss" that you will find that Buddhism and Kundalini, ultimately, are at odds with one another. Dare I say that Kundalini is completely "doable" within the context of progressing on the Buddhist path? Maybe…Im not really qualified to say so. I can say…maybe… that the reverse is not possible…that Kundalini will bring you to the highest realization of Buddhist view.

    • Padma Kadag says:

      One more thing…hahaha…any reference to gods and goddesses were inquiry to whether or not Kundalini as prescribed by whatever "hindu" school it originates is dependent upon a god or goddess. I would assume so, as practiced by Indian kundalini devotees. If this is the case..and if this belief in a god or godess as a seperate all knowing entity is the goal…then this taking refuge in another being who is subject to karma will only at best give one temporary benefit and is then at odds with any ultimate buddhist view. This is my only point in regard to Donna's original question.Does Buddhism forbid the taking of refuge in devas? No. Buddhism forbids very little. Many Buddhists, themselves, erroneously worship the Buddha as a god. Having faith in gods and goddesses, for certain individuals may be part of their Buddhist path. But at sometime those individuals, if they inquire enough and diligently do practice, in a Buddhist sense, will need to go beyond the concept of a god.

      • dharma_singh says:

        I believe I answered the original question, Are Zen and Kundalini at odds. The answer is, it depends who you ask. This is a real answer to a very good question. I have studied with a legitimate Guru in the Kundalini tradition and my wife has studied with a legitimate Guru in the Buddhist tradition. I know my Guru would approve of zen meditation as long as it does not interfere with my daily practice which was given to me. I cannot ask him in person because he is not living, but I know this would be his answer. Yoga can be very open minded in this sense – just read the yoga sutras. I have also studied (a little) with my wife's Tibetan Buddhist teacher who strongly discourages his students from doing any practice outside the lineage he teaches. This is a difference between Yoga and Buddhism.

        If you are asking if the fundamental philosophies are different, yes – they are. But only on the surface. However both Buddhism and Yoga can follow the Bhakti tradition and very much compliment each other, If you keep an open mind and focus on similarities and not differences.

  7. Dewaine says:

    thanks for the article Donna

  8. Nate says:

    To Padma, I'm a peace lover, not an arguer, but I must say, your blatant animosity is shocking, especially for someone who claims to be on a spiritual path–even resorting to name calling ("new agey stuff"). Wow. There's a lot of anger coming through your posts. All because you cannot see the point that has already been clearly made. I have to tell you, the idea of our own inner peace being on the inside is not new agey at all–it is evolved. To be a Buddhist is to see through separateness. Like Thich Nhat Hanh explains in his book, Being Peace–it all happens within. Is that new agey, too? (PS, do they pay you to create controversy? Do you do this in every article? lol)

    Continued in next post (it told me it was too long)

    • Hi, Nate. Are you using Internet Explorer? If so, you can get around the "too long" problem by using another browser.

    • Padma Kadag says:

      wow Nate…your accusations of my "Ignorance in a Buddhist sense"…you are laughable..and judgemental. Your response to my comment regarding "inner peace" is just as meaningless as Donna's. How is it that when asked the original question regarding …"Do you see any conflict between zen and kundalini?" …that if I inquire from an Asian studies professor to comment on a path which is dependent upon a god and a path which is not dependent on a god and all she can come up with is "Its all within"? My intestines are within also…so what? It seems that she was name dropping and getting free advertisement.

  9. Nate says:

    Here is another bit of writing on the subject that accords with the point made here:

    "Swami Vivekananda, the first great figure to bring Yoga to the West, examined the Buddhist Mahayana scriptures (Sutras) and found much similarity between their key teachings and those of Vedanta. In recent years with the influx of Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama, into India since the Chinese occupation of Tibet there has been a new dialogue between the two traditions that is bringing about greater respect between them. Tibetan Buddhists often appear at Hindu religious gatherings and partake in all manner of discussions….(cont)

  10. Nate says:

    …Nor is the attempt to connect the two traditions limited to modern times. Various synthetic Hindu-Buddhist teachings have existed through history. Buddha himself was born a Hindu and some scholars have argued that Buddhism as a religion apart from Hinduism did not arise until long after the Buddha had passed away. A Shiva-Buddha teaching existed in Indonesia in medieval times, and for many Tantric Yogis it is difficult to tell whether they were Hindus or Buddhists. Buddha became accepted as an avatar of Vishnu during the period while Buddhism was still flourishing in India, and most Hindus still consider that we live in the age of the Buddha-avatar. Most Hindus accept Buddha, even if they do not accept all Buddhist teachings…" (Vamadeva Shastri)

    • Padma Kadag says:

      Nate…I will repeat myself..Your historical accounts are nothing new. The meat of the original question by Donna leads to the question "Does Buddhism and "Hinduism or Kundalini" share the same goal and result"? Based completely on philosophical rhetoric from both schools the answer would be no.I dont believe you would argue with that since you seem to be versed in history and sutra. So where does this idea that all of these paths end up in the same result? There is not one of you that persist in this concept who has traveled even one of these paths to it's ultimate result let alone all that you include as being the "same within peaceful-ness". I think there are two things going on here: One is that at the introductory level through faith, all religions will give some comfort and this is being confused as some level of consciousness. Two…The blending of all spiritual paths as being "ONE" makes it easier to market your own niche in the market place of spirituality.

      • Gandhi saw himself as a Hindu who was also ‘a Muslim, Christian and Sikh’. This apparent paradox of multiple religious belonging is essential to a proper understanding of Hinduism. Inclusive approaches were articulated from the beginning of history. The Vedas stated “The truth is one, the sages call it by different names.” If all religions lead to the one Truth, the one Consciousness, then there is little scope for religious conflict. Conflict comes from perennial human foibles.

        And about the Dalai Lama, as he himself well knows, he is practicing a religion that is a hybrid of Hindu Tantrism, native Tibetan Bon, and what we now call Buddhism.

        The sort of belligerent pressing as seen in some of these comments can go on forever, literally–as seen in the history of philosophy–and that is because they come from the discursive mind. It is why the masters will simply tell you to shut up and practice;)

  11. "Perfection is a state of mind, when it is pure. I am beyond the mind, pure or impure. Awareness is my nature; ultimately I am beyond being and non-being." (I AM THAT. Sri Nisargadatta)

    This quote is from none other than the spiritual classic by one of India's great sages. I first learned of it by my Zen teacher, but it is known and loved by spiritual seekers of all paths.

    He speaks of awareness. Ahh, it always comes back to awareness. Living in awareness, as Krishnamurti was wont to say. That state beyond duality, beyond the separate self, beyond ego, beyond delusion and beyond the veil of maya. Beyond ignorance. Where none is seen as separate. Infinite consciousness.

    "Most of the people in the world just do not know that there is a reality which can be found and experienced in consciousness," he says.

    It is getting beyond the limitations of the body, beyond the trappings of the senses, beyond the limiting stories that bind us and hold us back. It is to go beyond contradictions themselves.

    Love,
    ~Donna

  12. Tom D. says:

    "Ahh, it always comes back to awareness. Living in awareness, as Krishnamurti was wont to say. That state beyond duality, beyond the separate self, beyond ego, beyond delusion and beyond the veil of maya."

    Yes! Thanks for this article, Donna. This clarifies some of my own questions!

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  14. maza says:

    The Buddha was a kundalini yogi, the is not a person that as ever lived or ever will live, that will find enlightenment whithout kundalini being aroused,, although do. Remember. That kundalini is just a name given to it in the last fer thousand years by a certain groupe of. People, and. It has been called many names by many groups of people throut time.

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